Sunday, January 28, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 28, 2001

Clinton's final days embarrass Washington

By Richard Benedetto

Bill Clinton left office a week ago. But the story didn’t end there.

True to form, Clinton could not leave quietly, or with dignity.

His final-day plea-bargain to avoid prosecution for lying under oath and obstructing justice; his 11th-hour pardon of a multimillion-dollar tax evader, among 139 others; and his acceptance of a going-away-gift trousseau valued at $190,000 have raised new ethical questions around an already-tainted presidency.

Clinton even tried to steal the Inauguration Day media spotlight from incoming President George W. Bush. He staged an elaborate final review of the troops and farewell ceremony before departing Washington and a welcome-to-New York celebration when he arrived.

While the gauche departure can be dismissed as bad manners, the plea-bargain, pardons and gift haul long will be remembered by those judging the Clinton legacy as further examples of a president whose moral leadership was a joke.

These final insults even embarrassed many Democrats who backed Clinton over the years, despite charges of womanizing, draft evasion, shady campaign financing and the whole Monica Lewinsky mess.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, whose brother William ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign last year, was particularly miffed by Clinton’s ungracious exit and belated admission to making false statements under oath.

"We got in this quandary for two years and the Friday before (he leaves) he says, I did it,’ and walks away. He left a lot of people disappointed," the mayor said.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle criticized as "inappropriate" Clinton’s final-day pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who fled to Switzerland in 1983 after being charged with using sham oil transactions to escape $48 million in federal taxes.

He and partner Pincus Green, whom Clinton also pardoned, also were charged with "trading with the enemy" after buying more than $200 million worth of oil from Iran. President Jimmy Carter banned trade with Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.

Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, who raised more than $1 million for the Clintons and the Democratic Party, acknowledged asking Clinton to pardon her ex-husband. But she said her political largess had nothing to do with the pardon.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made a similar denial of political payoff over her husband’s reduction of sentences of four men convicted of stealing $40 million in government money in an education scheme.

Members of the Hasidic sect to which the men belonged heavily supported Hillary Clinton during her Senate campaign last year. And she acknowledged setting up a White House meeting between her husband and sect leaders last month, but says she played no role in the clemency decision.

Then there is the $190,000 in gifts the Clintons took away - furniture, silverware, china and the like. The gifts were sent by well-heeled supporters - Denise Rich chipped in two coffee tables and two chairs worth $7,375 - with a deadline of Jan. 3, the day Hillary Clinton took office. Senate rules would have prevented her from taking such gifts once she was sworn in.

That kind of fine-line interpretation of rules and laws was a hallmark of the Clinton White House years. We can only hope now that they are really over for good.

Richard Benedetto writes for Gannett News Service. Jerry Burris was off this week.

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